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Rights and Obligations March 3, 2008

Posted by beholdthestars in Life & Living, Quotations.
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The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.

It makes nonsense to say that men have, on the one hand, rights, and on the other hand, obligations. Such words only express differences in point of view. The actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, amongst which are certain duties towards himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights. He, in his turn, has rights, when seen from the point of view of other men, who recognize that they have obligations towards him. A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatever, but he would have obligations….”

                                      Simone Weil, The Need for Roots*

Now that you’ve read it, go back and read it a second time….I’ll wait.

Simone WeilSimone Weil is saying something forgotten in a society in which fierce battles over “rights” are waged every day. Rights and obligations are each necessary to the other in the same way that it takes a buyer to have a seller or a front to have a back.

From her perspective, implied in the relationship between rights and duties is a moral imperative in which obligations are the driver. As human beings and members of society, we have obligations both to ourselves and to others with whom we interact. Rights, on the other hand, have validity only to the extent that there is an accepted obligation in another person or institution. Thus our rights may or may not exist; in either case, however, our obligations remain.

We talk about controlling our state of mind here at Behold the Stars. We can’t control external events or others’ states of mind any more than we can control the fickle West Texas weather (I was out in a t-shirt yesterday; it snowed today). So we focus on what we can control: ourselves. We can also focus our attention on our obligations to others and stop whining about what others owe us. The moment we begin to worry about what we think others owe us, we get into trouble.

Ask yourself, “What do I owe the people around me? What are my obligations to them?” Then set out to fulfill those obligations. It’s no simple task, but worth the effort.

Make a great day.

*For those of you not familiar with her, Simone Weil was one of the most original thinkers to come out the early 20th century. During her short 34 years, she was many things: scholar, school teacher, factory worker, labor organizer, resistance fighter, anarchist soldier, philosopher, and mystic. T.S. Eliot said she possessed “a kind of genius akin to that of the saints,” and Malcolm Muggeridge felt she was “…the most luminous intelligence of the twentieth century.” She is utterly fascinating, terribly quirky, and has a sort of mystical charisma that draws her new fans 65 years after her death.



1. clupeiform - March 3, 2008

A commonly-used expression in my part of the country (and probably also in yours), in discussions of rights, is “Your rights end at the end of my nose.” I would have more faith in those who use that phrase if they didn’t so often act upon this aphorism as though their rights begin at the end of MY nose.

We each have a great power to do good in the world…and a corresponding power to do great harm, if not great evil. The difference lies within the choices we make, and the obligations we have, and the rights we recognize. And upon never forgetting that we have the power to make those decisions.

Thanks you for this reminder.

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